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NPNF2-10. Ambrose: Selected Works and Letters
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Chapter VI.

We ought not to allow the idea of profit to get hold of us. What excuses they make who get their gains by selling corn, and what answer ought to be made to them. In connection with this certain parables from the Gospels and some of the sayings of Solomon are set before our eyes.

37. Let not, therefore, expediency get the better of virtue, but virtue of expediency. By expediency here I mean what is accounted so by people generally. Let love of money be destroyed, let lust die. The holy man says that he has never been engaged in business.641641    Ps. lxxi. 15 [LXX.]. “Sanctus in negotiationem introisse se negat,” says St. Ambrose, from Ps. lxxi. 15. According to the Septuagint, “οὐκ ἔγνων πραγματείας” which in the old Latin versions became “quoniam non cognovi negotiationes” (the Vulgate has “literaturam” for “negotiationes”). For to get an increase in price is a sign not of simplicity but of cunning. Elsewhere it says: “He that seeketh a high price for his corn is cursed among the people.”642642    Prov. xi. 26.

38. Plain and definite is the statement, leaving no room for debate, such as a disputatious kind of speaking is wont to give, when one maintains that agriculture is considered praiseworthy by all; that the fruits of the earth are easily grown; that the more a man has sown, the greater will be his meed of praise; further, that the richer returns of his active labours are not gained by fraud, and that carelessness and disregard for an uncultivated soil are wont to be blamed.

39. I have ploughed, he says, carefully. I have sown freely. I have tilled actively. I have gathered good increase. I have stored it anxiously, saved it faithfully, and guarded it with care. Now in a time of famine I sell it, and come to the help of the hungry. I sell my own corn, not another’s. And for no more than others, nay, even at a less price. What fraud is there here, when many would come to great danger if they had nothing to buy? Is industry to be made a crime? Or diligence to be blamed? Or foresight to be abused? Perhaps he may even say: Joseph collected corn in a time of abundance, and sold it when it was dear. Is any one forced to buy it at too dear a price? Is force employed against the buyer? The opportunity to buy is afforded to all, injury is inflicted on none.

40. When this has been said, and one man’s ideas have carried him so far, another rises and says: Agriculture is good indeed, for it supplies fruits for all, and by simple industry adds to the richness of the earth without any cheating or fraud. If there is any error, the loss is the greater, for the better a man sows, the better he will reap. If he has sown the pure grain of wheat, he gathers a purer and cleaner harvest. The fruitful earth returns what she has received in manifold measure. A good field returns its produce with interest.

41. Thou must expect payment for thy labour from the crops of the fruitful land, and must hope for a just return from the fruitfulness of the rich earth. Why dost thou use the industry of nature and make a cheat of it? Why dost thou grudge for the use of men what is grown for all? Why lessen the abundance for the people? Why make want thy aim? Why make the poor long for a barren season? For when they do not feel the benefits of a fruitful season, because thou art putting up the price, and art storing up the corn, they would far rather that nothing should be produced, than that thou shouldst do business at the expense of other people’s hunger. Thou makest much of the want of corn, the small supply of food. Thou groanest over the rich crops of the soil; thou mournest the general plenty, and bewailest the garners full of corn; thou art on the lookout to see when the crop is poor and the harvest fails. Thou rejoicest that a curse has smiled upon thy wishes, so that none should have their produce. Then thou rejoicest that thy harvest has come. Then thou collectest wealth from the misery of all, and callest this industry and diligence, when it is but cunning shrewdness and an adroit trick of the trade. Thou callest it a remedy, when it is but a wicked contrivance. Shall I call this robbery or only gain? These opportunities are seized as though seasons for plunder, wherein, like some cruel waylayer, thou mayest fall upon the stomachs of men. The price rises higher as though by the mere addition of interest, but the danger to life is increased too. For then the interest of the stored-up crops grows higher. As a usurer thou hidest up thy corn, as a seller thou puttest it up for auction. Why dost thou wish evil to all, because the famine will grow worse, as though no corn should be left, as though a more unfruitful year should follow? Thy gain is the public loss.

42. Holy Joseph opened the garners to all; he did not shut them up. He did not try to get the full price of the year’s produce, but assigned it for a yearly payment. He took nothing for himself, but, so far as famine could be checked for the future, he made his arrangements with careful foresight.

43. Thou hast read how the Lord Jesus in the Gospel speaks of that corn-dealer who was looking out for a high price, whose possessions brought him in rich fruits, but who, as though still in need, said: “What shall I do? I have no room where to bestow my goods. I will pull down my barns and build greater,”643643    S. Luke xii. 17. though he could not know whether in the following night his soul would not be demanded of him. He knew not what to do, he seemed to be in doubt, just as though he were in want of food. His barns could not take in the year’s supply, and yet he thought he was in need.

44. Rightly, therefore, Solomon says: “He that withholdeth corn shall leave it for the nations,”644644    Prov. xi. 26. St. Ambrose cites the same verse each time, but the first time according to LXX. The second time he varies the commencement. not for his heirs, for the gains of avarice have nothing to do with the rights of succession. That which is not rightfully got together is scattered as though by a wind by outsiders that seize it. And he added: “He who graspeth at the year’s produce is cursed among the people, but blessing shall be his that imparteth it.” Thou seest, then, what is said of him who distributes the corn, but not of him that seeks for a high price. True expediency does not therefore exist where virtue loses more than expediency gains.


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